The best science books of 2021 | Science and nature books
Early in the pandemic, it is the blunt tools of past centuries that have saved the most lives. Until safety is proven, by Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley (Picador), delves into the grossly effective and widely abused quarantine strategy, separating those feared to be sick from those deemed healthy. The authors trace the formal quarantine in Dubrovnik to the 14th century when, in response to the Black Death, visitors were ordered to spend a month in a nearby town or on an islet before entering the town. The strategy spread elsewhere but, despite keeping the disease at bay, discrimination, inconvenience and miserable conditions did little to encourage compliance. In a spectacular failure, a plague-infested ship escaped Sicilian quarantine and left 16,000 dead on the island. Examples range from the Apollo astronauts (quarantined in case they carried moon germs) and the Covid pandemic to efforts to prevent a “shockpocalypse” by protecting the cocoa tree. With the upsurge in emerging diseases, quarantine is back for good, the authors warn, and it needs to be radically overhauled.
From the moment the coronavirus took hold in China, the race was on to make a vaccine. That the researchers designed, manufactured, tested and obtained approval for the jabs in a record 12 months is extraordinary. In Vaxxers (Hodder & Stoughton), two key members of the Oxford Vaccine Group, Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green, describe the grueling effort behind this feat. The science is clear, as is the intense pressure on the team, no doubt exacerbated by the media scrutiny. But Oxford set out to make a “vaccine for the world” and set aside the profits to achieve the goal. In an episode of history short of heroes, no need to look any further. And controversy over the effectiveness of the vaccine, the rare serious adverse events and how it would be distributed.
While the advent of Covid vaccines marked a highlight for modern medicine, the story of OxyContin, a potent and highly addictive pain reliever, is at an unforgivable low. In Empire of Pain (Picador), Patrick Radden Keefe, editor at The New Yorker, tells about the Sackler dynasty, two branches of the family that came together to support the blockbuster drug from Purdue Pharma. The pills helped fuel a deadly wave of drug use across the United States during an opioid epidemic that has killed more than half a million people. The Sacklers who took over Purdue knew their drug was more potent than morphine, but exploited the fact that doctors thought otherwise. The book reeks of wrongdoing, disgraceful behavior, and corruption that are deeply entrenched in America’s health care system. Profits from OxyContin helped fund Sackler’s philanthropy, usefully linking the surname to high culture and scientific advancement. Hence the Sackler Library at the University of Oxford and the Sackler Institute at King’s College London. In a Sackler hearing, Jim Cooper, a congressman from Tennessee, said, âWatching you testify makes my blood boil. I’m not sure I know of a family in America that’s more evil than yours.
It could be considered a red flag when a scientist wakes up with a pounding heart after a pig-faced Hitler walks into his dream wanting an introduction to the “uses” of their discovery. The nightmare struck Berkeley biochemist Professor Jennifer Doudna in 2014 amid a row over Crispr patents, the gene-editing technology she helped develop. In The code breaker (Simon & Schuster), Walter Isaacson tells the story of Doudna. Isaacson is an accomplished biographer and the result is clear, insightful, and even funny. Doudna and her collaborators, including Prof. Emmanuelle Charpentier, with whom she shared the 2020 Nobel Prize, believe that Crispr will save lives by curing genetic diseases. But as Doudna reflected on his nightmare, she also realized the myriad ways he could be abused.
Our clever attempts to bend nature to our will have a strange ability to backfire. In Under a White Sky (Bodley Head) Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction, offers a guided tour of these calamities. It begins on the Chicago River, once so filled with human excrement and other delicacies that it was said a chicken could cross without getting its feet wet. With the river flowing into Lake Michigan, the city’s source of drinking water, engineers reversed the flow, sending the waste to St. Louis. This decision “changed the hydrology of about two-thirds of the United States,” says Kolbert. Later, Asian carps were introduced to feast on weeds that clung to the propellers of boats, but the invasive species pose a threat to the ecosystem and must now be contained by electrifying the river. The title of the book comes from proposals to combat global warming by spraying hundreds of thousands of tons of particles into the atmosphere. What could go wrong? On the one hand, if the spraying stopped, the world would experience a rapid warming called the âend shockâ. Most disturbing is Kolbert’s conclusion that, despite the risks, technological solutions may become our only hope.
One of the most intriguing and provocative books of the year is Sleeping Beauty: and other stories of mysterious illness by Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan (Picador). In Sweden, hundreds of children from refugee families fall into near-coma states for months or years at a time. In New York State, seizures are becoming contagious among schoolchildren. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan communities report disturbing tremors, convulsions and hallucinations of a figure with a hat coming to take them away. O’Sullivan, a neurologist, looks at the cases and describes how âbiopsychosocialâ and âfunctional neurologicalâ disorders may not show up on MRI scans, but are no less real or serious for their absence. She finds that social narratives often play a crucial role in the spread of such diseases – and in their treatment as well.
The efforts to understand consciousness are faced with a daunting question. Rightly called âthe difficult problem,â he asks why we should have a rich inner life – why is there such a thing as being you? It is not certain that science has the answer, but in Being you: a new science of consciousness (Faber), Professor Anil Seth, director of the Sackler Center for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex (see above) suggests an approach that could take us all the way. By focusing on what it calls “the real problem,” modern science can understand why patterns of brain activity produce particular experiences and not others. It is a brilliant and profound book that explains how our perception of the world, including ourselves, is a “controlled hallucination”: the brain’s best estimate of what exists, built as much from the inside out as it is from the outside. from the outside to the inside.
Carlo Rovelli, professor of quantum gravity, tackles a different kind of mystery in Helgoland (Allen Lane). The book is named after the North Sea Rock where, in 1925, the young Werner Heisenberg opened the door to the Quantum Realm with calculations that left him in shock. This is not Heisenberg’s story, however. This is Rovelli’s take on how physicists got lost in their thinking about the quantum world. He is not a fan, for example, of the theory of multiple worlds, where reality splits up to accommodate all possible futures. Rather, he pushes his “relational interpretation”, where objects are defined by everything with which they interact. It conjures up a confusing world. “We must give up something that seemed the most natural to us,” he wrote: the simple idea of ââa world made of things.